Free Essay Database Online


The control over women’s sexuality through restriction, coercion, violence
or more complicated forms of political and social manipulation remains the
most powerful tool of patriarchy in the majority of societies. Religion is
often misused, both as an instrument of this control mechanism and as a
cultural system, to legitimize the violation of women’s human rights.

However, concentrating on the role of religion in constructing women’s
sexuality without taking into consideration its interaction with the
economic and political structures in a particular community can lead to
erroneous conclusions.

Like many other religions, Islam does not have a static or monolithic
tradition. Islam has interacted with sociopolitical and economic conditions
at a particular time and geographic location in order to ensure its
survival and power. In the process, it has not only absorbed the practices
and traditions of the two other monotheistic religions born in the same
territory, namely Judaism and Christianity, but also the pre-Islamic
practices and traditions of the particular geographic location in which it
has striven to survive and gain power as a cultural and political system.

Thus, it is very difficult to define what is intrinsic to Islam in
organizing sexual behavior. The issue becomes even more complicated when we
look at the interaction of factors such as class and race with Islam at a
particular time and place, which hasledtodifferentreligious
interpretations and practices. All of these factors often produce different
schools of Islamic thought, some of which can exist even within the same

Discourses on sexuality in Islam often fail to consider differences in
practices in different Muslim communities as well as the spaces of
negotiability created by social taboos and silences related to sexual
behavior.1 Nonetheless, even discourses based on an analysis of the Koran
and the literature traditionally accepted as establishing the normative
practices of Islam can lead to contradictory conclusions aboutthe
construction of women’s sexuality. On the one hand, Islam has recognized
both women and men as having sexual drives and rightstosexual
fulfillment. Eroticism is presented as a good in itself, both a foretaste
of heaven and on earth a divinely ordained necessity for reproduction.

Women, like men, are believed to experience orgasms. On the other hand,
particularly in terms of sexual drives, males and females are construed as
opposites, men as rational and capable of self control; women as emotional
and lacking self-control. Female sexuality, if uncontrolled, is portrayed
as leading to social chaos (fitna). Social order thus requires male control
of women’s bodies and sexuality.2 However, the specificpatriarchal
mechanisms that are utilized to maintain this
1 For a more detailed critique of dominant discourses of’Islamic
Sexuality’ in contradiction to existing practices in different Muslim
communities, see Ayesha Imam’s chapter in this volume.

2 See, for example, Fatima Mernissi, Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics
in a Modern Muslim Society, (New York: Schenkman, 1975); Fatma A. Sabbah,
Woman in the Muslim Unconscious (New York: Pergamon, 1984); Nawal El
Sadaawi, The Hidden face of Eve: Women in the Arab World, 1980); Charles
Lindholm, The Islamic Middle East: An Historical Anthropology (Oxford:
Blackwell, 1996); Bruce Dunne, “Power and Sexuality in the Middle East”,
Middle East Report, Vol. 28/206 (1998): 8-11.

control differ according to geographical location, time, class and race and
depend on the economic and political realities of a given community.

The historical role of the interaction of Islam with specific socioeconomic
and political systems in shaping women’s sexuality in different Muslim
communities is still a relatively unexplored issue. Although the 1990’s
witnessed a spurt of new research on women’shistoryandgender
organization in Muslim societies, the accumulated knowledge is still too
rudimentary to throw light on such a complex and sensitive issue as women’s
sexuality. Even in recent decades, women’s own accounts on the issue have
remained very rare. In most Muslim societies there is a striking lack of
empirical data on sexual behavior, especially women’s.

In such a context, research on the official, religious and customary laws
and practices that determine the organization of gender and the context of
women’s sexuality in different Muslim societies could throw light on the
ways religion is used to create and perpetuate the oppression and injustice
women experience in these societies. It would also play an invaluable role
in deconstructing the myth of a uniform Islam, which fundamentalists claim
consists of “a divine and eternal truth”. The Women and Law action-research
program of the international network of Women Living Under Muslim Laws
(WLUML) has evolved as a response to this need. Under this program, many
country projects are conducting comprehensive